The unknown stalks the maidservant’s life like a shadow that cannot be escaped. With every action around Mary Reilly, the author builds a question without an answer. The conflict bears a great deal on the story of Dr. Jekyll, but the tension rises from the unknown reasons for his dealings and their implications on Mary’s crumbling world.
Mary’s backstory is laid out in full display for the reader in the first seven pages. I believe this causes an unparalleled sympathy for her position and condition. Even here, the author uses the darkness of the closet, the bag thrown in with its unknown contents, and the trapped torture and carnage dealt by the ‘dog-sized’ rat to bring about a terror of, and abhorrence for the dealer, her father. This suppressed memory is used to great effect to carry the tension into Mary’s daily chores.
A counter to the weight of this nature comes from the revelation that Mary can read and write. Just as surprising as the treatment at the hands of her father, the author lays out details of Mary’s past that build a character that appears solid and grounded in her station, countenance, and fortitude, though, a bit anxious in her desire to be of greater importance to Dr. Jekyll. An example of her anxious boldness that brings about a misstep in her self-awareness, saying, “Mr. Poole, I can take the tray out now if you like and you can come behind with the claret.” (pg. 18)
The author’s description of the response does a great deal for the story in building the character of Mr. Poole and setting the tone for the expectations of position among the servants. “But he only stopped and gave me one of his cold, dead looks, like a fish’s eye when you know it’s none too fresh and said, “Mary, you know Dr. Jekyll forbids anyone but me to go to the cabinet door. I wonder you could forget this simple direction.” (pg. 18) Mary’s character is further developed as she speaks boldly in conversation with Dr. Jekyll, despite her attempts to keep her boldness in check. “You do put things strongly, Mary.” (pg. 46) Dr. Jekyll brings it out through conversation, causing mixed emotions for Mary with recreating a sense of mental insecurity that manifests in her curiosity to the point of making her paranoid.
The unknown brings itself to bear again and again in ways that build the tension for Mary and her connectedness with Dr. Jekyll. The unknown person lurking about the drawing room, the reason for Dr. Jekyll’s letters to Mrs. Farraday, and the bloody sheets in her room. What could it possibly mean to find a handkerchief there embroidered with HJ?